Welcome to my blog. If you live in Surrey and birding is your obsession (to get out of bed at some ridiculously early time of the morning, no matter what the weather, to go and look at birds isn't normal behaviour, believe me) and you're still a bit of a novice (like me) then, hopefully, this blog is for you.

Friday 28 June 2013


Before I begin, I must point out I didn't venture to Scotland to see this remarkable bird or witness its demise – there would never be a situation whereby I could drop everything and fly/drive/hitch a lift to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I still find it remarkable anyone is able to do that, to be honest. While I didn't see it I felt compelled to write about this White-throated Needletail, the world's fastest bird in flight.

It has been an extraordinary few days in the birding world – quite surreal, in fact. Only a month ago the idea of a White-throated Needletail came up on the excellent Rare Bird Alert weekly report (always entertaining and well-written) by Mark Golley. Unabashed, I've repeated some of it here:

There’s been a May 23rd Marmora’s Warbler, a 24th May White-tailed Plover, a May 25th American Kestrel (don’t ask any questions about that…) and ~ for many, one of the ultimate grip-backs for the current generation ~ a May 25th White-throated Needletail ~ the Quendale bird of 1984 appearing on that date….

Another record of the ultra-fantastic species (the same bird presumably) came on May 26th 1991 (seen in Kent, then also in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Shetland…) and on May 27th 1985, one famously spent a little time over Fairburn Ings in West Yorkshire while, yep, you’ve guessed it, May 28th saw the appearance of the most-twitched (doubtless it really was one-in-the-same for years) White-throated Needletail to date ~ the bird on Hoy, that spent 12 days cavorting at high-speed around the island, dodging the occasional Peregrine attack….and drawing rounds of applause with every overhead pass it made. Happy memories indeed!!! 

Y’know, there’s more than just those four species to mention, but when you’ve got to Needletail you kind of grind to halt don’t you. How can you top that? It remains the ultimate British rare for those who’ve scored one and we are approaching the prime arrival time. Sadly, the last sighting came in 1991 ~ and there’s not been a sniff of one in the 22 years that have followed. 

And then of course, on Tuesday evening this week one was reported seen on the Isle of Harris.

I was excited and I wasn't even going, so it must have been an incredible twitch to travel to. After an incredibly long and tiring journey for the few who made the trip, it didn't disappoint the next morning. Needless to say, Garry Bagnell was there, having taken the cheap option of driving to Inverness and then flying from there to Stornoway. He took some brilliant footage together with a succinct voiceover...

But no matter how he describes it, this bird was indeed a show-off, appearing to perform in front of its audience. What a bird. Utterly beautiful. I wish I had been there to see it. If I never saw another bird, I would've been happy if this had been the last one.

Here's one of the best photos of a Needletail you will ever see taken by Josh Jones - makes an F1 grand prix car look as aerodynamic as a London bus:

Fantastic photo of the White-throated Needletail taken by Josh Jones
As this super mega bird was playing to the crowds, I was heading to the Isle of Sheppy, a place my wife described eloquently as 'the arse-end of the world'. She may be right, but the birdlife can be amazing – but not in this instance. We'd travelled through traffic in the hope of seeing a Black-winged Pratincole that had dropped in at the Swale Nature Reserve during the late morning.

I made the glaring error, however, of not keeping up to date with reports on its whereabouts when I left the house at 4pm. I was unaware when I pulled up in the reserve car park at 5.30pm that it had flown off at 4.10pm, heading west. Idiot.

At about the same time up in Scotland, some terrible news was coming in. I looked at the Twitter feed and saw this:

I was shocked. Dumbfounded. After all the excited reports coming through of how brilliant it had been, now this.

Birding pal David Campbell had driven up from Banstead overnight with friends and had just arrived after nearly a 13-hour journey. He then watched as the Needletail flew directly into a wind turbine and was killed instantly.

Unbelievable and desperately sad.

He took this footage after it had died:

After that David became the birding spokesman on this story, and has been featured on BBC Radio 4, the BBC news website, Daily Mirror and many other media outlets.

Here's Newsnight Scotland (watch from 14min 42 secs in) including an excellent interview with James Hanlon: http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b036bnmd/

So remarkable coverage of this incident which, by way of a tragic accident, has brought the birding world into the media spotlight. It's such a pity it couldn't have been for a better reason.

The dead White-throated Needletail (David Campbell)

Thursday 20 June 2013


Graham James, Holmethorpe birding guru, asked me if I could post this feature of his recent stay in Wales on the blog, which I was more than happy to do. Graham, who finds it hard to walk long distances these days, doesn't have internet access but instead has invested in a decent camera. It was a pleasure to let someone else, particularly a fine birder like Graham, write a post on the blog for a change!

Nestled on the north-west edge of the Brecon Beacons, Llandovery, Carmarthenshire is a quaint drover’s town where herdsmen gathered from all over South Wales to make their huge cattle drives to London. With a monthly farmers market and a weekly produce market, a good selection of interesting shops to browse, several public houses and a large tourist information centre, it offers most facilities and the King’s Head, the Castle Hotel and the Bluebell Inn are all recommended locally as good places to eat. There is also a very good fish and chip restaurant, a baguette shop, a burger and kebab establishment and a couple of tea-rooms if you prefer. 

The town also boasts a ruined Norman castle with a magnificent statue of Welsh hero Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (photo below). A pair of Red Kites are usually over the Castle car park for most of the day.

The River Towy, the River Bran and the River Gwyndderig all flow through the town and Dippers and Common Sandpipers appear to be most abundant near the bridge on the road that leads to Myddfai (photo below).

My wife and I stayed for the first week of June at a bed and breakfast at Henllys Estate a mile or so outside the town. This was our third visit to Henllys B & B and I cannot imagine that there is a better place to stay in that part of Wales. The owners are James and Sarah McGill and you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer, more charming and friendly couple. 

James cooks the best breakfast I have ever had the pleasure to have eaten (apologies to my wife) and all the produce used is sourced locally (sausages and bacon to die for). The breakfast menu is varied and it sets you up for the day ahead.

The accommodation is first class with bright en-suite rooms, spotlessly clean, quality modern furniture, TV and super-comfortable double bed.

The beamed breakfast room (photo below) is roomy and, yet again, spotlessly clean.

The cost of bed and breakfast at Henllys is, at present, a very reasonable £70 per night per room (including breakfast) and you can contact James and Sarah on 01550 – 721332 or write to them at Henllys Estate, Llandovery, Carmarthenshire SA20 0EW.

The grounds of the estate are superb, with a Woodland Walk that takes you past a lake (photo below) and through a wood that was carpeted with bluebells when we were there (bluebells in June?). 

Much of the walk through the wood is board-walked and it hosts breeding Common Redstart. Garden Warblers are everywhere and there were also two pairs of breeding Spotted Flycatchers, a female Pied Flycatcher and a pair of nesting Marsh Tits within a hundred yards of our room. Red Kites and Common Buzzards are present in the area and were seen every day from the estate.

Just down the road from the estate is a bridge over the River Towy and here there are Dippers. We regularly found an adult and a juvenile bird near the bridge.

A few miles to the north is Lyn Brianne Reservoir (photo below) with its spectacular views. 

Nearby to this is RSPB Dinas (photo below). This is a fantastic birding site with Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Wood Warblers, Common Redstarts, Marsh Tits, Nuthatches, Red Kites, Common Buzzards and Ravens in abundance. Siskins and Marsh Tits visited the feeders near the car park and it worth spending a while here to see what drops in. 

A word of warning though: the path is very rocky and steep in places and makes for difficult and treacherous walking. Should you be unfortunate enough to have a mishap, it is impossible to get a mobile phone signal from here.

Goshawks and Goosanders are said to be seen at the reserve but, unfortunately, we failed to see either species on our two visits during the week.

Further to the north-east between the Elan Valley and the edge of Snowdonia National Park is a gem of a reserve called Gilfach Nature Reserve. It is managed by Radnorshire Wildlife Trust and is spectacular for its scenery and wildlife. Here we found Pied Flycatchers and Grey Wagtails, Tree Pipits, Common Redstarts and Ravens. Wood Warblers were heard but not seen. Otters are said to frequent the river and there is a hide on the bankside for those who have the patience to wait for them. The hide is also good for woodland birds and Nuthatches gave some very close views. Further on from the hide is a visitors centre and toilets and outside the centre there are various bird feeders that attracted Lesser Redpolls in good numbers. I also found a Green Hairstreak butterfly on the heathland part of the reserve, which was a first for me.

Another site, a few miles south of Llandovery, that is well worth a visit is the Red Kite feeding station at Llanddeusant. There is a café by the road (appropriately called the Red Kite) and the owner feeds the kites in a field about 150 yards down the road at 3pm each day during the summer months and at 2 pm during the winter. There is a hide to watch from and close views are guaranteed. Apart from the 30 or more Red Kites present at feeding time, there were also a couple of Ravens and a passing Common Buzzard.

I have to say that it was a fantastic week’s birding in stunning scenery and staying in superb accommodation. Also, the weather couldn’t have been better – not a drop of rain all week and very warm and sunny, which is unusual for Wales.

If you have the time and the inclination, a birding visit to this area will be rewarding and I don’t think you could find anywhere better that Henllys Estate B&B for your stay. We are definitely heading back there later this year.

Saturday 15 June 2013


Before setting off for a trip to Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and Cley Marshes in Norfolk very early yesterday morning, and having had a good run of late with four rare bird sightings over a three-week period, I just had to pay Cuckmere Haven a visit on Thursday evening for the American Golden Plover that had been there for a couple of days.

Reading from reports it was clear this American vagrant was easy to view from a close distance, just off the footpath, a mile walk from the Golden Galleon pub on the east side of the river, heading towards the estuary and the English Channel beyond. 

The weather had cleared from earlier in the day but it was still quite breezy. Having parked up at about 6.30pm and walked the 20 minutes to the pool just north of the scrape it was a very easy twitch.

There sitting quietly on the grass edge to the pool, just ten metres away, was the American Golden Plover. It would occasionally get up and stretch its wings before going off for a quick feed around its recently acquired back yard and then return to the grassy mound again.

It couldn't have been easier, which I was thankful for because I had to get back home and get ready to set off for Aldershot and Rich Horton's house where I was meeting up with Rich, Matt Phelps, Rich Sergeant and Dave Baker – the Tice's Meadow gang – before setting off overnight for Lakenheath.

The American Golden Plover was a very obliging little bird

Matt and Dave were already at Rich's house when I got there just before midnight but Rich Sergeant, who was the designated driver, was held up driving back through London having been at an Army dinner.

Once he arrived and we'd loaded the car, we set off at around 1am and got to Lakenheath before 3am, where we met up with Mark Leech. It was already starting to get light, but sleep was needed. While most got their sleeping bags out and slept outside, Matt and I chose the car.

A decent sleep wasn't really on the cards. I probably dozed for about half an hour during which time a Cuckoo woke me up.

A tap on the window and it was time to get up. We also met with Frank Boxall and we set off on our walk around the reserve and, hopefully, a Golden Oriole sighting, just after 4am. There had been rumours a male had left the reserve last week and that there was little chance of them breeding here this year, but Mark had seen four Oriole around the poplar trees to the south west of their usual breeding area just a week earlier, so there was still hope.

The first bird we saw was a Barn Owl. We watch three in all, one of which had caught breakfast. The first Bittern was heard booming, three Curlew flew over, while numerous Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler began to sing heartily.

A few minutes later and the first Grasshopper Warbler began reeling, and a Common Crane was heard calling in the distance. Good news.

Lakenheath Fen at 4.30am
Along the walk, a Cetti's Warbler burst into song and we saw a pair of Marsh Harrier hunting plus a Hobby flew out of the trees. Two more Bitterns boomed in the distance.

More than an hour in we saw two Common Crane feeding in a field to the north east, then suddenly Rich Sergeant stopped in his tracks. He had heard a Golden Oriole call in the distance. I couldn't really make it out but it called twice from an area about half a mile away from us.

We headed for the poplars in that part of the reserve, where we heard and then located our fourth Grasshopper Warbler of the visit, perched up in the reeds, reeling its head off.

A Grasshopper Warbler reeling at Lakenheath
Another pair of Marsh Harrier came close by, another Cetti's Warbler song echoed from inside the poplar wood, but try as we might we never saw, let alone heard, a Golden Oriole after that initial song. It was a pity, but that is the nature of birding for Orioles. They are notoriously hard to observe.

Heading back towards the car park, we saw a number of Bearded Tit in the reeds, a Kingfisher flew across calling, another Grasshopper Warbler was seen reeling in the reeds close to the path before flying off and another Cetti's Warbler sang and then flew across the path into a bush.

We got back to the car park and set off for out next port of call, an area close by that Sean Foote regards as one of the best areas to see Stone-curlew. As it turned out we couldn't find any so instead we went to the traditional Stone-curlew location at Weeting Heath.

We timed the visit well as the warden and his team were due to ring the chicks and that would mean the adults would disappear for some time. We just managed to get to the hide and watch a pair of Stone-curlew with its chicks before the warden walked in and disturbed them.

A brief, but successful visit. Next stop breakfast, a full English one at a cafe in Brandon, and then it was all-systems-go heading north for Cley Marshes. Having never visited either Lakenheath, Weeting Heath or Cley before, this was turning out to be a great trip.

We got to Cley by 11am. After a stop for coffee in the visitors centre – from where we could see a Spotted Redshank in summer plumage out on the reserve – we went for our walk. The first bird we saw was a Bearded Tit before we stopped along the east side of the reserve at the Serpentine, where two Pectoral Sandpiper were feeding on the edge of the scrape. A really good bird to see in June.

One of two Pectoral Sandpipers at Cley
Cley is an excellent reserve. Not only is there a well-positioned visitors centre where you can view the whole reserve and watch birds at your leisure while drinking coffee and eating cake, the reserve also backs on to a shingle beach and the North Sea, so there is the prospect of some sea-watching.

Rich Horton looks out to sea as four Sandwich Tern fly by
This is what we did next. Up on top of the shingle dunes we watched as numerous Sandwich Tern and at least 10-15 Little Tern flew along the edge of the shore. A great sight. Further along an Oystercatcher was sitting, presumably, on a nest and gave close-up views, as did one of many Avocet, also sitting on a nest on the shingle.

An Oystercatcher on the shingle beach at Cley
In fact, the Avocets are clearly doing well at Cley. They were everywhere, as were Shelduck. Before going to the hide by the North Scrape we saw a Spoonbill which was, as is usual for Spoonbill, sleeping.

One of the Spoonbill was reluctant to wake up

From the hide a Little Stint was feeding close by, being seen off occasionally by a pair of Avocet chicks. From here we could see the sleeping Spoonbill, the Spotted Redshank and a Ringed Plover.

A Spotted Sandpiper at Cley
The Little Stint occasionally had Avocet chicks for company
On the walk back to the visitors centre I found another Spoonbill (it could've been the same one as earlier) on the Simmond's Scrape, while a Marsh Harrier sent the gulls and waders up as it circled overhead.

A Spoonbill at Cley preening when not asleep
Back at the visitors centre I sat back, exhausted, and enjoyed a pot of tea. We'd had an excellent day – it was knackering and maybe we didn't see the mega birds at Lakenheath we'd hoped for but nonetheless we'd had some really good sightings during 11 hours of birding. I don't thinking any of us could have walked another step.

The drive back took more than five hours, including the usual Friday rush-hour snarl ups on the M25, and despite having only had about an hour's sleep and with a head full of hay fever, Rich S did a fine job getting us to Norfolk and back. The time passed quickly on the way home, spent talking birds and listening to Rich's compilation of Porcupine Tree – one of his favourite prog rock bands – which I had to admit was pretty good. Even Kate Bush was bearable!

Days don't come much better than this. Spending a day out with a great bunch of lads birding from dawn until you drop.